The web has gone through its share of trends in graphics and digital media since the early days when animated GIFs were abundant on websites. At the dawn of the millennium, Flash and its interactive multimedia capabilities were all the rage as they pushed the boundaries of what was possible for digital media on the web. The tools available for Flash designers and developers were good for their time, and the community and support behind Flash propelled its features to new heights. It became far more than a vector animation tool; it was the best method for developing games and interactive digital media content for the web.

Digital Media for the Web - HTML5 Unity WebGL Flash
However, as with many technologies, Flash was not without its flaws, and during the rise of the iPhone and other mobile devices, it was pushed aside as an inefficient proprietary software that got in the way of Apple’s mandate. It was forever tarnished, and the use of the Flash on the web basically ceased due to the inability to view Flash content on iOS devices. Games and apps for mobile devices really took off through the app stores as developers gained access to robust tools for creating native apps. Adobe AIR proved to be a very popular format for distributing games and digital media to app stores using Flash as the authoring tool. A new development platform called Unity also arrived on the scene with a focus on 3D/2D game development for mobile, desktop, and web with a quickly growing user base. With users taking to apps on their mobile devices and tablets for their gaming and digital media experiences, a lot of digital media shifted from the web to mobile apps, leaving the highly touted HTML5 as the way forward for digital media on the web.

It’s great that the web in general has moved towards open standards with HTML5, which removes the need for browser plugins (such as Flash, Unity, and Silverlight) and avoids the drawbacks that are sometimes associated with plugin technologies. HTML5 is open and searchable with semantics, light-weight for websites, effective for developing Rich Internet Applications (RIA), and natively supports rich media such as video. Video-based animations can also be produced to look much better than plugin-based solutions. Responsive design HTML5 websites are adaptable to the variety of desktop and mobile device resolutions, and most are set up on a CMS, which is quite effective for the vast majority of web presences. HTML5 (with JavaScript/jQuery and CSS) also nicely handles animations and effects such as parallax, transitions, and sliders. There are a lot of positive developments and momentum within the community, and it’s an exciting time as things become more standardized and easier to work with. HTML5 is also increasingly being used for mobile web apps and hybrid mobile apps, and it is getting access to more native device features all the time.

In its earlier days, HTML5 was not as strong with more complex games, animation, and digital media development for the web. Flash and Unity were still far ahead in terms of its design and development tools and workflows, seamless handling of media, hardware-accelerated graphics, and ease of programming. The fragmentation of support for HTML5 features in different browsers also made it much more difficult and time consuming to develop than Flash (which is a develop once and distribute everywhere solution) and even native mobile apps. For a while, designers and game/interactive developers had a harder time given the available tools (or lack thereof) and workflows to create advanced digital media projects for the web.

Thankfully, the HTML5 movement is massive, and through its growth and large community, many of the challenges that have held it back in these areas have been addressed. Many frameworks, libraries, engines, and tool sets are available that now make it more attractive for digital media web projects. Also, there is much better browser support (less fragmentation of features) which was a hindrance to developers. With Google Chrome disabling support for a number of plugins (including Flash) and the other browsers likely to follow that trend, it’s clear that HTML5/JS with WebGL is the future of digital media on the web.

Digital Media for the Web - HTML5 Unity WebGL Flash
WebGL (Web Graphics Library) is a Javascript API for rendering 3D/2D graphics that is currently supported by all major browsers without the use of plugins. WebGL works with HTML5 to take advantage of hardware accelerated graphics processing, which makes all the difference when it comes to the heavier rendered interactive graphics that may be required for digital media experiences and games. With direct access to the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), the bottleneck that was common for browser-based graphics is alleviated.

Now Unity provides robust WebGL export, which allows content to be developed with these software platforms which works nicely on the web. This is helpful for interactive designers and developers who can leverage these tools and workflows to build better games and digital media experiences, and they can focus their time on creating compelling digital media with the tools they like. The release of Web GL 2.0 brings many improvements in the processing and handling of 3D graphics and gives developers access to more advanced graphic settings. Desktop and native mobile apps will always have better accessibility and efficiency with hardware for graphics processing, but WebGL is a big step forward for digital media on the web.

Every digital media platform for the web has its strengths and benefits as well as its drawbacks. There isn’t a single solution that is best for all projects. The future of Flash/AIR is bleak, and it hasn’t been used for digital media on the web for years, although it had recently been used (as long as Adobe and third parties keep it alive) for some multi-platform 2D digital media development for desktop and mobile apps. Fortunately, HTML5 frameworks and Unity are able to fill the gaps in development that were left by Flash/AIR. With its many useful frameworks, engines, libraries, and other features, HTML5 is great for all-around development and digital media apps for the web and desktop and has exceeded it’s predecessors.

For the future of advanced gaming and digital experiences, Unity is top notch. It’s capable of creating next-gen 3D/2D game experiences with workflows that are unmatched. Its engine and capabilities go beyond anything that could previously be done with other software, and it has the community, support, and momentum to reach new heights for games and digital media across all platforms. The Unity Asset Store has a growing library of software and media assets for developers to extend their applications with complex features. The rapid growth and feature enhancements with Unity are truly exciting, and we will continue to work with it and HTML5 in the future.

A new era of digital media for the web is upon us; it’s filled with exciting new possibilities for next-gen interactive digital media and games, new devices and sensors, and solid platform options for designers and developers alike. While the technologies change and evolve, our drive to create inspiring interactive digital media solutions for our clients remains unchanged. We remain committed to working with the best digital media tools and technologies available to craft your experience.